Los Angeles Times Magazine
Sunday April 14, 2002
Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics
No One Was Ready for N.W.A’s ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ But It Sold 3 Million Records and Transformed the Music Industry.
By TERRY MCDERMOTT
The beginning of the end of life as we know it occurred here, on a beaten patch of asphalt out in the vast, flat no man’s land of greater Los Angeles.
The beginning of the end came unannounced. There was no salute, no blast of trumpets or heavenly choir. It came in the sunken heat of summer at an abandoned drive-in movie theater called the Roadium.
The Roadium was graced by a grand arched gate that, in its day, promised entry to whatever secret kingdom Hollywood could conjure. By the summer of 1985, though, the drive-in, its dreams and innocent magic are relics of a long-gone past. The dull blur of south county towns the Roadium served–Torrance, Lawndale, Hawthorne, Gardena, Carson and Compton–are staging areas in a decade-long descent into what feels at times like a war zone; and at times is. Street corners are outposts in a new crack economy, boulevards battle lines dividing endless variations of Bloods and Crips, usually from one another, always from themselves.
With the drive-in theater gone, the stuff of dreams has been traded for just plain stuff. The Roadium’s arch now frames an open-air bazaar piled high with cheap Chinese toys, one-size-fits-all Sri Lankan socks, used car batteries, secondhand tool chests, last year’s Barbie dolls and canned peas with last week’s use-by date. The Roadium is a swap meet.
The first thing you notice are the people. The place is so jammed you wonder how they ever got along without it. At the moment, the biggest crowd surrounds a little stall just inside the old arch. Kids are lined up two, three deep along the perimeter of the stall, whooping and hollering. A lanky Japanese guy, whippet-thin and wired, presides behind a homemade plywood table in the middle of the noise. The table is stacked high with records, LPs and those 12-inch singles that disc jockeys spin. He’s got more of the same displayed on a 20-foot-wide pegboard behind him.
He’s got so much product that some days, days when the heat is so thick you could lean against it, the table legs sink an inch into the melting asphalt.
The whole place isn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet, and it’s hot in every way imaginable. The air’s an oven, the kids fired by the desire for the new.
“Yo, Steve. Whatcha got?”
“Stevie, Stevie, whatcha got new, man?”
Steve Yano is the man of the moment, an East L.A. guy who has somehow swapped a career as a high school guidance counselor to become the uncrowned king of a swap meet music underground. He has turned his table into the hippest, hottest record store on the West Coast. He’s got everything–all the new East Coast hip-hop, the best old-school R&B, all the L.A. dance jams, that locking-and-popping stuff you see on “Soul Train.” He has stuff nobody else has, stuff nobody else has ever heard of. He has stuff so new it doesn’t even exist yet (not officially), stuff with no labels, no packaging, just the stamp of the new.
It is the new that tugs at the ears of the man who will deliver the beginning of the end of life as we know it. He’s a little guy, 5-5, 5-6, tops, with the slow swagger of a hustler fat on house money. Steve Yano remembers him showing up that first day at the Roadium, going through piles of 12-inch singles. Big piles.
“He looks ’em over, stacks ’em up. Then says, ‘I’ll take these.”‘
The guy has maybe 20 records in front of him. Yano is used to kids buying one, maybe two at a time. These are not rich kids. They wouldn’t be at the swap meet if they were. Yano thinks this guy is scamming.
“All those?” he asks.
“Yeah,” the kid says. He’s got a high, squeaky voice that makes him sound even younger than he looks. And he looks about 13. He picks up one of the 12-inchers, a cut from some local DJs called the World Class Wreckin’ Cru.
“Where you get that from?” he asks.
The question doesn’t even register with Yano, who still can’t believe the kid has money to buy all the records he has in front of him.
“All of them?” he asks.
“Sure,” the kid says, and reaches down in his sock. He comes back up with a roll of cash. He peels the bills off. Bam. Just like that.
Then he says: “Tell Dre, Eric says, ‘Whassup?’ ”
With that, Eric Wright turns and walks off with a stack of records half as big as he is. Yano, of course, tells Dre nothing. Dre, Andre Young, a member of the Wreckin’ Cru, is one of the hottest young DJs in L.A. He doesn’t need to be bothered, man. Not with this kid anyhow.
Wright comes back the next weekend, asks about Dre again, wants his numbers. He’s polite but persistent and comes back every week. Yano finally asks Dre if he knows a homeboy named Eric Wright. And damned if Dre doesn’t.
“Next thing I know,” Yano says, “those guys are on a three-way call with me at 2 in the morning. Eric wants to open a record store. I tell him, ‘Don’t do it. It’s a bad business. I can show you how, but don’t do it.’ ”
Eric has money–street money, dope money–and wants to go straight. Dre, meanwhile, bugs Yano, who knows every low-level somebody in the record business in all of Los Angeles, to start a record label. Dre wants a place to put out his own music.
In time, these dreams merged and came true. Eric went into the record business, all right, not with a corner store but with his own label and Dre was on it. Soon that label, Ruthless Records, sent out into the world some of the weirdest, funniest, saddest, maddest music anybody ever heard. Out of that little swap meet stall came the partnership that rocked, then overran the record business.
The partnership took full form in the hip-hop group Niggaz With Attitude, which in 1988 released a record called “Straight Outta Compton.” This was the group’s first national release. N.W.A was largely unknown. The record contained no hit singles. In most of the country, nothing from the record was played even once on the radio. It was too crude, too misogynistic, too violent. MTV, which had by then established itself as the primary gatekeeper of popular culture, refused to play N.W.A videos.
No radio, no television and no publicity.
“Straight Outta Compton” sold 3 million records.
The music it contained was so perverse, so nihilistic, so forbidden, politicians–then and still–elbowed each other out of the way to condemn it. Highbrow critics couldn’t find language strong enough to critique it; they went further, questioning whether it was even music at all. It’s barbaric, they said. Hide the women and children; bar the doors. Too late.
Gangsta rap was in the house.
Locking and Popping
The content of youth culture today is, to a significant extent, hip-hop: hip-hop records, hip-hop fashion, hip-hop film, hip-hop attitude. It is the only genre of popular entertainment that cuts consistently across class, ethnicity, gender and age. Just as rock music was a vehicle for the countercultural attitudes that provoked social upheaval among the middle classes in the 1960s, hip-hop in general and gangsta rap in particular have carried urban underclass sensibilities to the wider society–which has reacted with equal parts enchantment, imitation and outrage.
But in the first half of the 1980s, people in the Los Angeles-based record industry saw hip-hop as an East Coast fad. Hip-hop’s few national hits were dismissed as novelties. Southern California was in the grip of a dance epidemic, a local disco fever. A DJ collective called Uncle Jamm’s Army played Culver City east to Pomona; the Dream Team owned South-Central. A forceful young man named Lonzo Williams worked the clubs and parties from Gardena to Long Beach.
Lonzo had been an ardent dancer who started DJing to make money. While still at Compton High School, he booked house and block parties, graduating to 1,000-plus-seat venues such as Alpine Village in Torrance and even the Queen Mary.
Lonzo landed a regular gig at Eve After Dark, a new Compton nightclub. On Fridays he would spin records from 9 at night until 5 the next morning, turning the crowd over three or four times. To share the load, Lonzo in the early 1980s built a team of DJs called Disco Construction; then, as disco died, the World Class Wreckin’ Cru. The Cru played the usual: Donna Summer, Average White Band, George Clinton, Parliament and Prince.
Eve was a high-class club–dresses for the ladies and ties and slacks for the gentlemen. Lonzo dressed his Jheri-curled DJs in matching lavender outfits and devised Temptations-style choreography. The club became a fixture on the dance map of Los Angeles. “People came out in droves,” Lonzo recalls. “It was a constant party.”
A young Compton kid started hanging around outside Eve, which didn’t serve alcohol but had an age limit. His name was Andre Young. He was 17, still a student at Centennial High, and already a three-year DJ veteran.
Young pestered Lonzo for a spot on the Cru. On a night when one of the regulars didn’t show, Lonzo gave the new kid a shot.
Lonzo says the key to DJing in such a competitive scene was to “find the most obscure record you could and play it.” Dre was young, but he had tremendous musical knowledge. He’d been listening forever to his mother’s extensive rhythm-and-blues and jazz record collection. When she came home after work at night, he once said, the stereo went on before the lights. He DJed for her and her friends when he was barely school age.
That first night at Eve, Young mixed the old Motown song “Please Mr. Postman” over Afrika Bambaataa’s seminal hip-hop recording, “Planet Rock”–two songs with completely different tempos and moods. For whatever reason, it worked.
The crowd went crazy and Lonzo went, “Hmm, what do we have here?”
One of the most popular acts in town at the time was Uncle Jamm’s Army, in which the DJs built identifiable characters–essentially roles they played onstage. One, a heartthrob named Egyptian Lover, did several numbers exploring the racier dimensions of his love life. Lonzo admired Young’s musical talent, but even more he saw the good-looking young ladies’ man as a draw, his answer to Egyptian Lover. Young joined the Wreckin’ Cru under the stage name Dr. Dre in honor of Julius Erving, the basketball player known as Doctor J. Lonzo booked other acts into Eve, including the first L.A.-area appearances of New York rappers Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC. When the Wreckin’ Cru saw Run-DMC for the first time, they looked at one another in amazement, recalls Antoine Carraby, a DJ known as Yella.
Run-DMC was a Eureka moment.
” ‘This is it? It’s not even a 10-minute show. We can do this.’ That’s exactly how it started,” says Yella. “We can do this.”
They began writing their own material. It didn’t seem to matter that none of them were musicians. Yella could program a drum machine. Otherwise, they were lost.
“We were DJs. What we knew was partying,” Lonzo says. “I can’t play dead. I can’t play the radio.”
No matter. Dre was naturally musical in a way that most DJs only dreamed about. Dre and Yella hung out during the day at Eve After Dark, listening to records, figuring out how to replicate instrumental tracks on an old four-track recording deck in the back room. It was, Dre says, how he learned record production.
In 1984, they went into Audio Achievements studio in Torrance, where for $100 they recorded two tracks–one called Slice, the other Kru Groove. The music–a fast-beat techno sound influenced by the German band Kraftwerk–consisted mainly of drum tracks programmed by Yella and Dre’s turntable scratching, the distinctive wicky, wicky sound made by manipulating a turntable by hand. Another member of the group, Marquette Hawkins, known as DJ Cli-N-Tel, rapped lyrics that mostly said how clever Yella was to have written them. They took the tracks to Macola Records, a small, independent label in Hollywood where you could have records pressed in lots as small as 500. For virtual pocket change, they were now proud owners of a two-sided, 12-inch dance single. They began selling it out of the trunk of Lonzo’s car to independent record stores throughout Los Angeles.
“We sold 5,000 of them,” Lonzo says. “Five thousand! That’s like ghetto gold.”
The New Mall
Steve Yano was a grad student in educational psychology at Cal State L.A. when he saw an ad on campus for a part-time job delivering records to stores in the area. Within a year, he found himself part owner of a record store with the man who had hired him. The store did well enough but couldn’t support them both, so Yano sold his half of the business to his partner. Yano took payment in merchandise.
“At about this time, the West Coast swap meet scene just blew up,” Yano says. “I spent the week, Monday through Friday, searching for product. Hitting all the spots in town, going through used record bins. Weekends, I’d sell at the meet. I went to every single pawnshop in L.A. You could buy 10 records for a dollar. I knew I could sell three of them for two bucks each.”
At the peak of disco fever, Yano got a stall at one of the busiest swap meets in California–the Roadium on Redondo Beach Boulevard in Torrance. Customers at the Roadium were mainly African American, and Yano began to tailor his product to fit the customers. “Then there started to be this new type of talk–R&B, Grandmaster Flash, Kurtis Blow, Run-DMC,” Yano says. “These guys are popping. Kids are talking about it. Do you have any 12-inch? Nobody has it. They’ve never heard of it. Finally, I found out places you can get some.”
Among those sources was Lonzo Williams. Yano called him.
“Oh yeah, sure,” Lonzo said. “How many you need?”
“Three or four,” Yano answered.
“Pretty soon it was, ‘I’ll take 10 of these. Then 50,’ ” Yano says. “Pretty soon Lonzo is coming to me with stuff and I’m carrying 100 titles. I’m selling 100 a week of some of them. The DJ craze hits. Now everybody and their mother is a DJ and they all want the latest [music]. So they all come to me. I was selling a lot of 12-inch vinyl. I mean, a lot. Pretty soon other dealers are coming to me. I’m meeting these guys outside bowling alleys in parking lots at midnight. It was like we were dealing drugs.
“I become for a while a very important guy. I’m buying 500 copies of a title. The first place anybody called in L.A. was me. ‘Play this. Whattya think?’ All these label guys are starting to bring me their new records. I could tell the first weekend if something is going to sell just by how the kids react. If it was good, kids would start to break dance right there in the stall.”
One day, when Yano went to Eve After Dark to meet Lonzo, he heard Dre and Yella in one of their practice sessions.
KDAY, a local radio station, had converted to an all hip-hop format, the first station in the country to do so. The station had a daily feature called Traffic Jam, and it solicited local DJs to make mixes. Dre and Yella did mixes several times a week–Yella on the drum machine, Dre scratching on the turntable.
Yano listened, rapt. “Is that how you do it?” he asked.
“You want us to make you a tape?” Yella answered. Yano took the tape to the swap meet the next weekend.
“I’m playing it,” Yano says, “and people go, ‘Who did that tape? Can I get that?”‘
Calling Dr. Dre
By the mid-1980s, much of the record business had evolved into large integrated companies that did everything from signing artists, assigning them producers and songs, then promoting and selling their records through sales staffs. More and more, the records were marketed through giant retail chains.
Low profit margins made store rack space too valuable to waste on unknown artists. This was less true in black communities, where small, locally owned retailers hung on and where there was an enduring demand not just for what was popular but for what was novel. These stores provided an outlet for the new music that the big chains wouldn’t risk stocking. This helped make hip-hop possible in the first place.
While Lonzo worked the local market, Don MacMillan, the owner of Macola Records, distributed Wreckin’ Cru recordings to an informal network of independent distributors around the country. MacMillan had several hip-hop acts on Macola. The artists were drawn to him by the easy terms. He would press records in small quantities and send them out. He didn’t care who was making the records or what was on them.
MacMillan let the artists put their own labels on the recordings and control their own publishing. Lonzo called his label Kru-Cut Records.
After modest success with its first 12-inch single, the Cru had a hit with “Surgery,” a 1984 number written and produced by Dre that sold 50,000 records–a huge amount for an independently made and distributed record. “Surgery” was typical of the Wreckin’ Cru’s music: basic electronic funk, a fast drum machine beat, lots of turntable scratching and silly lyrics (“Calling Dr. Dre to surgery”).
The Wreckin’ Cru started making the transition from dance hall DJs to recording artists. They followed “Surgery” with “Juice” in 1985 and put out an album called “World Class” that same year. CBS Records called. Larkin Arnold, an executive, wanted a meeting. “Larkin was like the black godfather of music. If he said there was a meeting, there was a meeting,” Lonzo says.
The meeting went well. Arnold said he’d get back to them, and the Wreckin’ Cru went on tour as an opening act for Rick James. The Cru measured its success night to night by how many girls they could coax to their hotel rooms. Most nights, they earned high marks. “We had showmanship,” Lonzo says.
They did their dance steps, wore lace gloves, makeup and rhinestone satin costumes. These were, in their way, almost quaint reminders of Lonzo’s old-school roots. On the road, Lonzo got a call from his lawyer. CBS was offering a contract with a $100,000 advance.
Are you interested, the lawyer wanted to know.
“Interested? Sign the damned contract!” Lonzo screamed. “You got power of attorney. Sign it before they change their minds.”
Lonzo pauses at this point in the story. He now owns a small club on Manchester Boulevard in Inglewood. It’s empty in the way that only a nightclub at noon can be. He looks around and shakes his head.
“It was the worst thing that ever happened,” he says. “From that point on, we had nothing but dissension over money.”
Dre complained that Lonzo wasn’t paying him enough. He was the musical foundation of the Wreckin’ Cru but was being paid as one of the guys. That category–one of the guys–meant everybody except Lonzo, who, in his own defense, says that no one understood how much it cost him to keep the Wreckin’ Cru operating. It was his group; he paid for everything–advertising, recording costs, travel, equipment. It was only fair that he be paid more money. The irony was that the more successful the group became, the worse things got. This had been Lonzo’s one big chance. It left without him. He shakes his head again. “One day you’re cool, the next day you’re not. By the time we came off the road, we were on the down slide,” Lonzo says. “Something happened with those guys.”
Boys Become Boyz
The Wreckin’ Cru was Lonzo’s group. He decided what music they did. As much as Dre complained about money, he told friends that he was equally frustrated with the Wreckin’ Cru’s musical direction.
“I’m inviting Dre and Yella out to the stall. They’re cutting records right there at the Roadium,” Yano says. “Somebody plays it at a party. Everybody goes, ‘What’s that?’ But you can’t get it. You can’t buy it anywhere. It was unbelievable. Dre says, ‘Why don’t you make a label?’ I said, ‘No way.’ ”
Dre kept asking. Yano kept saying no.
“Then one day,” Yano says, “along comes Eazy.”
There was no reason to think Eazy-E (Eric Wright) knew anything about any business but selling dope.
But being a dope man imposed certain career limitations. When he wandered by Yano’s swap meet stall in 1985, at 22, he had resolved to get a new occupation. He told one friend if all else failed he would do what his father had done: go to work at the post office.
First, though, he wanted to give the music business a try. And it was clear to everyone that it was the money more than the music that interested him.
“Even as a kid, he was a businessman,” Yano says.
This was something Dre notably was not. He was a terrible manager of his own affairs, forever broke. He made matters worse by ignoring money matters when he could. He racked up parking tickets and traffic citations, then didn’t pay them until the fines doubled or tripled or he was jailed for not paying at all.
“What you gonna do? Couldn’t leave him in jail, you might have a gig that weekend,” Lonzo says.
So Lonzo bailed Dre out repeatedly. Finally, it happened one time too many. The call came, Dre asked and Lonzo said: “You know what? I’m gonna let your butt sit in jail for a while. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
“So he calls Eazy,” Lonzo says.
Eazy and Dre cut a deal: Eazy would bail Dre out of jail; Dre would produce records for Eazy’s new record company. Of course, Eazy’s record company existed only in Eazy’s mind. The idea of a minor-league dope dealer starting a record company from scratch was not as preposterous as it might seem. It was possible to create a virtual record company, although nobody called it that at the time. The existence of Macola Records, basically a fee-for-service pressing plant, lowered the bar to enter the record business to next to nothing.
Macola provided all of the infrastructure to manufacture and distribute records. Studios could be rented. And the music itself could be made quickly and cheaply. All Eazy really needed was ambition, which he had, and Dre.
“They come by the stall one day,” Yano says. “I got a guy there doing T-shirts, spraying them. Eazy says, ‘Whattya think of Ruthless? Ruthless Records?’ ” “That’s cool,” Yano said.
And the T-shirt guy painted what would become the logo for Ruthless Records.
Eazy Duz It
Eazy now had a name but still no artists, no material, no plan. Dre gave him a tape from a New York rap duo called HBO. Eazy agreed to record them as the debut artists for Ruthless. He booked time at Audio Achievements, where the Wreckin’ Cru records were made. He asked Dre for a song.
Dre had been writing with O’Shea Jackson, a young Compton MC who lived four doors down from one of Dre’s cousins. Jackson had been writing rhymes since grade school in L.A.’s Crenshaw district. Dre became a mentor. He’d pick Jackson up after school and take him along to clubs and to Lonzo’s garage, which they had converted into a ramshackle recording studio.
Dre produced an album by Jackson, Dre’s cousin Jinx and a third friend, Kid Disaster. They called their group CIA (Criminals In Action). Jackson adopted the stage name Ice Cube. Like a lot of kids, Cube was a huge fan of the comedian Richard Pryor. Cube’s parents had Pryor’s records, which in addition to being hilarious were exceptionally profane. Cube listened to the albums when his parents left the house. He started writing similarly obscene rap parodies of popular songs.
“We knew the value of language, especially profanity. We weren’t that sophisticated, but we knew the power it had,” Cube says.
He and Dre started DJing together at clubs and the Compton Skateland roller rink. Dre would play the instrumental tracks of popular hip-hop songs and Cube would rap obscene versions of the original lyrics. One of the highlights was a version of the Run-DMC hit “My Adidas” that Cube transformed into “My Penis.” The Skateland kids loved it. Cube wrote constantly. “I never stopped,” he says. “I had notebooks full of raps.” Among them was one called “Boyz N Tha Hood” that Cube wrote during English class at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, where he was bused from South-Central. Cube showed the rhyme to Dre, who made an instrumental track for it. When HBO showed up in Torrance to record, Dre gave them “Boyz.” HBO balked. Too West Coast, they said, and walked out. Eazy was stuck with the bill for an empty recording studio. Since Dre, Cube and the others were already in various groups, Dre urged Eazy to rap the song. Eazy resisted. He was a businessman. He knew nothing about rapping. Dre persisted, and with no other option, Eazy did the song.
He had no rap experience or skills, and it showed. It took two days to make the track. “We all laughed ‘cuz it was so bad,” Lonzo says.
“Boyz N Tha Hood” is the story of a young man’s misadventures with friends, cars, girls and guns on a single afternoon. It opens with him “cruisin’ down tha street in my ’64.” He sees a friend driving a stolen car. He catches another friend trying to steal his car stereo and shoots him. He has a couple of drinks, gets in a fight with his girlfriend, then with her father. He wrecks the car and, finally, walking home, sees the guy with the stolen car from the first verse fight with police. A busy day. “I can sell that,” Yano said.
Eazy took it to Macola, had a pressing done, and Yano started selling the 12-inch singles at the swap meet.
“Kids are just loving it,” Yano says. “We had the best promotion you could ever get, promotion at the grass-roots street level.”
Eazy would drive up to Hollywood, ostensibly to talk to Don MacMillan. “He’d go to Macola, go into the back room and steal his own records,” says Lorenzo Patterson, a young rapper whom Eazy recruited to join his label. “We’d take ’em out through the back door and throw them into his Jeep.”
Eazy hired “snipers”–friends, gangbangers, ordinary guys who wanted to make a couple bucks–to take the records around to neighborhood stores. They gave away cassette copies to kids in the projects who were leaders of their own little cliques.
Against all odds, “Boyz N Tha Hood” became a hit.
“The response told us we’d found our niche, to be ourselves,” says Cube. Eazy persuaded Dre, Cube, Yella and another local rapper named Mik Lezan, known as the Arabian Prince, to form an all-star group. Dre and Yella would make the beats; Cube would write the lyrics; Arabian Prince, Cube and Eazy would rap them. They could all continue to do their own things and get together on the side to make wild records for Ruthless.
It was an informal collective. People came and went in the studio. Cube, just out of high school, surprised everybody by leaving town to take a course in architectural drafting in Arizona. “If this record thing didn’t work out, I didn’t want to be out there digging ditches,” Cube says. The Arabian Prince left too–for a solo career. As replacements Eazy brought in Patterson, who went by the name M.C. Ren, and Tray Curry, a Texas rapper who performed as The D.O.C. Eazy auditioned Ren in his mother’s Compton garage, where he had recording gear set up. Ren had been writing rhymes since junior high. He rhymed equations in algebra class
. “He told me to start rapping about anything,” Ren says. “So I started rapping about [stuff] in the garage. He liked it, took the tape to Dre. Dre signed me on the spot. Took me to a notary public he knew in Lakewood, signed me to a contract. There was no money or nothing. I didn’t care. I was like, ‘Fine.’ ”
Ren says Eazy’s pitch was straightforward: at Ruthless, you could make records you couldn’t make at other labels; it would be a place where nobody would tell you what you couldn’t do. The records would all be like “Boyz N Tha Hood”–full of sex and guns, drinking and drugging. It would be stuff their friends would buy. At 24, Yella was the oldest of the crew. Eazy was 23; Dre, 21; Ren, 20; Cube, 18.
One day, hanging out at the Arabian Prince’s house in Inglewood, they arrived at a name for the new group. They wanted something everybody would identify with the West Coast. Somebody suggested From Compton With Love.
“Hell, no!” everyone shouted.
“Then,” Ren recalls, “Eazy says, ‘How ’bout N.W.A, Niggaz With Attitude?’ Everybody’s like, ‘Hell, yeah. N.W.A it is.’ ”
The Permanent Business
As the label took shape, Eazy bugged Lonzo for an introduction to Jerry Heller, a veteran talent manager. Lonzo had met Heller at Macola, which was a kind of social club for the emerging local hip-hop scene.
“We all heard of Jerry. He was always there at Don’s,” Lonzo says. “At one time he had almost everybody on the West Coast signed up. Throw it against the wall and see what sticks. That’s what he was doing.”
Lonzo and Heller had become friendly. Lonzo was older than many of the other guys, and he and Heller had an easy rapport. Lonzo didn’t much like Eazy. For one thing, he thought Eazy was prying Dre away from him.
“The original plan was for Dre to produce Eazy and stay in the Cru,” Lonzo says. “Dre was enticed by Eazy’s lifestyle. He got tired of the flashy costumes, got tired of practicing the choreography. He wanted to be a rapper.
“I’m fighting for the Wreckin’ Cru and I can’t compete. There’s a musical divide. I thought their music was good, but I wasn’t into it. I loved ballads.”
In the end, Lonzo agreed to introduce Eazy to Heller, but he made it clear he wasn’t doing it as a friend. He charged Eazy $750. The introduction took place in March 1987 in the Macola lobby. “Eazy took the money out of his sock right there and paid Lonzo,” Heller says.
Heller was an old pro, a part of what music people call “the permanent business.” Denizens of the permanent business have a genius mainly for endurance. They hang around, surfing the erratic waves of popularity that define pop culture. Heller had made and lost at least one fortune already. A middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road white guy with no musical ability, he had been managing musicians dating back to Creedence Clearwater Revival in the 1960s. By the 1980s, Heller’s fortunes had declined. He was, he says, “burned out on the industry.”
“Then I heard about this scene at Macola, this pressing plant on Santa Monica Boulevard,” Heller says. “For a thousand dollars, he’d press 500 records.”
Eazy told Heller about the kind of record company he wanted. Then he played “Boyz N Tha Hood” and a new N.W.A song, “Straight Outta Compton.”
“It blew me away,” Heller says. “I thought it was the most important music I had ever heard.”
They agreed to form a partnership and sealed the deal with a drink at Martini’s, a Hollywood hangout. Heller decided that what N.W.A needed most was better promotion and distribution. That fall, Heller sent the band on tour and went shopping for a partner. The tour was far from glamorous. For much of it, N.W.A shared the bill with Salt-N-Pepa, a group of three women with national hits. Salt-N-Pepa flew between dates while N.W.A drove in a van.
Salt-N-Pepa found it greatly amusing that the hard-core Compton “gangsters” had to drive themselves. “Used to laugh at us: ‘When y’all’s plane leaving?’ ” Ren says.
Heller wasn’t having a great deal more fun trying to sell the group. He says Columbia Records executive Joe Smith’s reaction, upon hearing a demo tape, was typical. Smith offered to purchase the name Ruthless, which he thought had possibilities, but wanted nothing to do with the records.
“Are you crazy?” Heller remembers Smith asking. “What the hell would make you believe somebody is going to buy this crap?”
Some evidence was beginning to accumulate that Smith was wrong. Heller took Eazy to New York to introduce him at an industry gathering. They were in an elevator at the Park Lane Hotel. The elevator stopped and let on Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels, the front men for Run-DMC. Heller and Eazy immediately recognized Simmons and McDaniels, who in turn gave Heller and, especially, Eazy the once over. Then, recognition having dawned, Simmons and McDaniels started softly rapping the lyrics to “Boyz N Tha Hood.”
“They knew every word,” Heller says. “The record had never been played on radio anywhere. It’s a 12-inch single distributed locally. And they knew the whole thing.” Seizing on the underground success of “Boyz,” Macola’s Don MacMillan compiled that song, a bunch of demos and rough recordings various people had done under the Ruthless banner and issued it as an album under the name “N.W.A and the Posse.” Only three of the songs on the album were performed by what would become N.W.A. The record didn’t sell in huge numbers, but it started building N.W.A’s reputation.
Johnny Phillips, a record distributor in Memphis, remembers a call around this time from one of his accounts, an independent record store in Cincinnati, asking about a record by a group called N.W.A that was being played in local clubs.
“I called Macola, bought a couple hundred of them. By the next month we were reordering five, six, seven thousand a week. As soon as we got ’em, we sold ’em.”
Phillips, the nephew of Sam Phillips, the man who discovered Elvis Presley, was a key distributor for Priority Records, a fledgling company in Los Angeles. He sent Priority a copy of the Macola album. Priority was the creation of Bryan Turner and Mark Cerami, former K-Tel Records executives. They had started the label just two years before and made some money issuing a line of rap compilation albums. Then they hit it big with an unlikely novelty hit, the California raisins.
Television commercials for the California raisin industry had featured a musical quartet of animated raisins singing the soul classic “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Priority licensed the rights to the singing raisins and put out an album of soul oldies. They sold 2 million copies. As a result, Priority was flush with cash and looking for new talent.
Coincidentally, Priority’s offices were on the same floor of a Hollywood building as Jerry Heller’s office. Turner, Cerami and Heller knew one another casually, and Heller had just been in to pitch N.W.A.
Cerami went to see the group perform. It was like the Beatles, he said. That sealed it. N.W.A was set to follow in the footsteps of the California raisins.
Paint Ball Politics
In the record business, money is spent on two things: recording music and promoting it. By the time N.W.A went into the studio to make its first real album, “Straight Outta Compton,” a typical studio album cost well more than $100,000 to produce. Some cost 10 times that much.
The more money that was spent and made, the greater the size of the record company that would manage it.
One of the great gifts hip-hop gave to the music community was liberation from these corporate bureaucracies. Most hip-hop records were being made by small companies on low budgets–“on machines you could buy for $200 at Toys R Us,” Heller says.
The other half of up-front costs–promotion and marketing–is spent mainly trying to get radio stations to play records. With N.W.A, there was no chance radio stations were going to touch the stuff, so there was no sense throwing money at them.
“You couldn’t spend money on radio, so basically you couldn’t spend money,” Turner says. This, coupled with low production costs, made the economics of an N.W.A record utterly different.
“I could sell fifty, sixty, seventy thousand of these records and make money,” Turner says.
With those numbers and with almost no investment, Priority could afford to both sign N.W.A and leave the group alone. After its brief tour, N.W.A, with Cube back home from Arizona, went into the studio with complete freedom to make whatever record they wanted to make. And they did.
“Straight Outta Compton” has been described variously as a work of revolutionary genius, a painful scream from the bleak streets of black America and, more commonly, as reprehensible trash with no redeeming value. It is all of that, and remains startling because of it.
“It’s just an image,” says Ren. “We got to do something that would distinguish ourselves. We was just trying to be different.”
The fifth word on the first song on “Straight Outta Compton” is unprintable in The Times. The same word and many variations of it recur with regularity thereafter.
The record is laced with language you don’t hear on the radio or in polite society. That was the beauty of it and, from the group’s point of view, the joy of it. “We were going to write about the street. Cussing and hollering,” Ren says. They didn’t give a damn about polite society, or anything beyond the narrow world of the low-level street hooligans they wrote about.
What is most shocking about the album is not the language but the gleeful, celebratory hedonism of it, the misogyny and violence and dark-as-midnight nihilism. As a listener, you get the sense you’re learning more about something than you really want to know, something you might at some point be called to testify about.
When people talk about the album’s political and social power, they’re referring mainly to the first three of 13 songs: “Straight Outta Compton,” “F— Tha Police” and “Gangsta, Gangsta.”
The other 10 tracks are party songs, some of them great dance tracks but lyrically silly and forgettable. Several songs had been recorded previously and were redone for the album. It is a measure of the power of the first three songs that they have been able to drown out memory of the other 10. Dre has at times seemed embarrassed at the rawness of the whole affair, saying the record was crudely made. Others see this as a virtue, part of the album’s immediacy. The record was made in just six weeks. It cost about $8,000 and has the loose sense of a bunch of guys having one hell of a good time–except Ice Cube, who is ferociously angry throughout.
“Think about how you felt at that age,” Cube says. “I was mad at everything. When I went to the schools in the Valley, going through those neighborhoods, seeing how different they were from mine, that angered me. The injustice of it, that’s what always got me–the injustice.”
The group was not political in any way other than the most elementary sense. Cube’s lyrics were more socially aware than he was. “F— Tha Police” was at least as dismissive of the police as it was an attack on them. The group wasn’t even going to record it initially. When Cube first showed the lyrics to Dre, he passed. “What else you got?” Dre asked.
It was only after Dre and Eazy were caught shooting paint balls at people at Torrance bus stops that Dre changed his mind about the song.
Cube was the main lyricist for the album. Dre and Yella shared the producer’s credit. They were almost always the first ones in the Torrance studio and the last to leave. Others came and went as need or whim dictated. It was clear who was in charge.
“Dre was like the main ear,” Ren says. “He’d tell you, ‘Try to make it like this.’ You’d do it. He’d be like, ‘Cool.’ Or, ‘That’s terrible.’ Dre’d look at you like, you dumb mother . . . .”
The results do not match Dre’s later musical sophistication; few things do. It was, as Priority’s Bryan Turner points out, his first real album. Even so, the sound of the album is as powerful as the lyrics–and more varied. The fast-beat Wreckin’ Cru techno is absent, replaced by slower, deeper, funkier rhythm tracks set in a scrap heap soundscape of sirens, gunshots, shouts, curses and cars. The overall effect can be ominous.
Hip-hop from its beginnings has been intensely place-based. Rappers have told us about their neighborhoods and towns, praising them and criticizing others. Regional chauvinism became a defining characteristic; geographic feuds a part of the drama. N.W.A made a virtue of necessity in celebrating Compton, a place few people had ever heard of outside Southern California. To this day, all that many people know of it is what N.W.A told them. In a way, people read both too much and too little into “Straight Outta Compton.” Too much was made of supposed political motivations and probably not enough of the fact that these were kids making records for other kids.
Few people placed the record inside a broader regional tradition to which it clearly belongs. California pop music in the last 40 years has had four periods of peak popularity: mid-’60s surf and hot-rod music; late-’60s psychedelia; ’70s laid-back country rock; and gangsta rap of the late ’80s through the ’90s.
As distinct as these genres are, they share a notably self-indulgent worldview. No matter who’s singing–Beach Boys, Jefferson Airplane, the Eagles or Niggaz With Attitudes–or about what, California hedonism prevails. As Cube put it in “Gangsta, Gangsta,” life is just girls and money, or words to that effect.
In almost any other medium, the same content would have been received more calmly. It would have been analyzed as an artistic stance, not a lifestyle. (These weren’t, after all, real gangsters.) Dre would have been exalted as a postmodern master, Frank Gehry at the mixing board, cobbling scraps of James Brown funk to cool Euro techno in a way that made both seem more alive. Cube would have been doing political commentary on CNN and Eazy’s autobiography would have been a business school staple.
People forgot that these were songs, fictions. Almost inevitably, establishment forces denounced “Straight Outta Compton.” It set off a long-running, unresolved debate about the content of pop culture.
The ubiquity of pop music encourages overreaction; it’s the only art form that blasts out of a 200-watt amp in the Toyota next to you at the stoplight on Slauson, the artillery thump of the bass vibrating shop windows a block away. Or, more to the point, the stoplight might be on Magic Mountain Parkway in Valencia; or any intersection in Bethesda, Md., Waukegan, Ill., or Redmond, Ore. Or, for that matter, in Tokyo, Paris or Rio.
From nearly the beginning, as soon as N.W.A broke out of the swap meet scene, the group sold most of its records far beyond the boundaries of black neighborhoods. Eventually, Priority calculated, 80% of the sales of “Straight Outta Compton” were in the suburbs, mainly to teenage boys who wouldn’t know real niggaz if one woofed in their ears.
The FBI Helps Out
The record came out in late 1988. Radio wanted nothing to do with it. When the group taped a music video, MTV refused to play it. Still, sales climbed into the hundreds of thousands.
“How did it happen? I was there from the beginning and experienced pretty much every part of it from up close, and it’s still inexplicable,” says David King, a Priority salesman. “Other labels would ask me how we did it. I couldn’t answer. Basically, we just manufactured and shipped records. And people kept asking for more.”
In other words, “Straight Outta Compton” sold itself.
Johnny Phillips, the Memphis record distributor, cites the unusual relationship between small, black-owned record stores and their customers. “Black consumers in particular will buy where they can trust the store. Doesn’t matter what it is. We’ve sold to combination record store/barber shops, even a pet store/record store.”
Turner says the knowledge of distributors such as Phillips was crucial in getting the record introduced nationally. “Those were the really critical relationships, with the mom-and-pop stores, because there was a whole list of them that could actually get your record promoted, get your record sold because kids would come buy it. There was such a demand for rap and such a lack of supply.”
At first the album received little national attention; sales built region by region. When it broke within an area, it crossed over to white markets almost immediately, King says. The hardest part was getting stores to stock it. “Once you got it in, that’s all it took,” King says. “It sold fast with junior high kids. It was illicit, forbidden fruit.”
By the middle of 1989, six months after its release, “Straight Outta Compton” was a stealth phenomenon. Then N.W.A got lucky–perversely so. Milt Ahlerich, an assistant director of the FBI, sent a letter to Priority, accusing the label of selling a record (“F—Tha Police”) that encouraged “violence against and disrespect for the law-enforcement officer.” Ahlerich didn’t propose to do anything. There was nothing he could do. He said merely that “we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action.”
The bureau’s interpretation of the song was so literal it’s a wonder it didn’t form a task force to dig up the bodies that Eazy, Ren and Cube bragged about dispatching. Bryan Turner didn’t know how to react.
“I was scared. You kidding? It was the FBI. I’m just a kid from Canada, what do I know?” Turner says. “I showed it to some lawyers. They said they [the FBI] couldn’t do anything. That made me feel better. Then we circulated the letter. The thing was like a nuclear explosion. Once we circulated that, everybody wanted to hear the record the FBI wanted to suppress.”
N.W.A went back on tour. Sure enough, they were banned from performing in some cities, touching off small riots. Every time it happened, there was a spate of publicity followed by a spurt in sales. “It was free publicity as far as I was concerned,” Yella says. Bill Adler, a former rap label executive, says it’s simple to identify elements of a hit record. “Pop music is teen music. The stuff that’s going to explode are the things that appeal to teens. Girls want somebody cute. Boys want somebody tough.”
What could possibly be tougher than to have the FBI after you?
“The FBI helped out,” Heller says. “MTV banned the ‘Straight Outta Compton’ video and we sold 100,000 copies. A whole cultural phenomenon. Several months into it, Elle did a 10-page spread on gangster chic in the foreign edition. We did a Newsweek cover.” N.W.A woke the music industry to the huge commercial possibilities of hard-core hip-hop.
Eventually people quit asking if hip-hop was a fad. Rap music worked its way on to the radio, dominated it to some extent, ending what had been a decade of de facto radio racial segregation. Hip-hop, now dominated by gangsta rap descendants, is the best-selling music in the world.
“The economics of it were staggering. Just staggering,” Heller says. If you were with Warner Bros., for example, and you sold 500,000 records, they might drop you from the label. The way we were doing it, if you sold 200,000 records you made a quarter million dollars. And you made it right there. We’d take the check to the bank, cash it and split it up on the corner.”
Whether all of the checks were for the right amount would later become a subject of much debate and litigation, but for the time being N.W.A was riding down Main Street in the biggest parade any of them had ever imagined.
Consider the things that had to happen for “Straight Outta Compton” to become a hit record.
It required an economic catastrophe to overwhelm metropolitan Los Angeles, leaving African American neighborhoods in shambles, their residents in despair. It required a crack epidemic to then sweep through those same streets, offering more misery but also complicated opportunities that enriched people such as Eric Wright.
It required the invention of the VCR and the sudden, unforeseen decline of drive-in movie theaters, creating the space where new American bazaars–the swap meets–would rise. It required the existence of Macola Records, an old-school oddity hanging on in a new-school world, and the persistence of inner-city, word-of-mouth recommendations in an age of mass-media dominance. It apparently even required the existence of animated raisins lip-synching Marvin Gaye records.
This history is a crooked street, crowded with more happy accidents than are comfortable to contemplate. It begins to seem like fate. It begins to seem as if Puffy Combs might have underestimated Dr. Dre when he said, “Dre is to rap what God is to the church.”
I Shot a Man in Reno
Here are sample lyrics from yet another song without redeeming social value:
“Early one morning while makin’ the rounds,
I took a shot of cocaine and I shot my baby down
I shot her down then I went to bed,
I stuck that lovin’ forty-four beneath my head.”
The song continues with the protagonist chased and caught by police, then sent to prison. In the last verse, unrepentant to the end, he laments that he “can’t forget the day I shot that bad bitch down.” He regrets only getting caught.
Rap critics would be right in finding very little social uplift in this song, “Cocaine Blues,” recorded by Roy Hogshead. Hogshead, however, was not a rap star. He didn’t even have a nickname.
He recorded this song in 1947, and at least five versions of it have been made since. Johnny Cash sang it on his best-selling “Live at Folsom Prison” album in 1968. Nobody protested or even noticed.
Alan Light, founding editor of Vibe magazine, an influential hip-hop publication, says he asked Cash about the potential harmful effects of rap lyrics. Cash referred back to the Folsom Prison record, specifically to the title song, which includes the line, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” You know, Cash said, I don’t recall ever hearing about anyone listening to that song, then going to Reno and shooting somebody.
Neither, as far as anyone knows, has anybody killed a police officer after hearing N.W.A’s “F— Tha Police.” So why did the FBI send a letter to N.W.A? Alan Light contrasts the reception of rap music with that of other popular arts that sometimes celebrate violence. Some of the best movies ever made–the “Godfather” series, for example–are exceptionally violent, and no one attempts to ban them. Dre points this out when he compares “Straight Outta Compton” to “Pulp Fiction.” His songs are dark comedies, he says; he wonders why people don’t see that.
“The difference is the level of respect accorded not to the artists but to the audience,” Light says. The audience for movies is presumed to know better, to distinguish fact from fiction. The hip-hop audience, presumably, cannot.
Maybe that’s the key to understanding the feelings “Straight Outta Compton” aroused, the success it enjoyed and the effects it continues to have. Maybe it disguises its fictional base too well. It’s too real. When N.W.A shouted at you, you were compelled to shout back. N.W.A was together in its most potent lineup for less than two years.
Cube, financially frustrated, left before the end of 1989 for a highly successful solo career. He has since become a screenwriter, actor and movie producer, a virtual corporation unto himself. The other four members put out two more N.W.A records, but to considerably less effect.
Dre split acrimoniously from Ruthless in 1992 to help form Death Row Records, where he recorded the second most influential hip-hop album ever, “The Chronic,” which defined the sound of rap for a decade. He has discovered and produced two of the biggest individual stars in hip-hop history–Snoop Dogg and Eminem.
Ren and Yella have had more limited solo careers. Ren is still recording, while Yella has a pornographic movie production business. Eazy continued to run Ruthless and to record until his death from AIDS in 1995. There continues to be talk of a reunion, with Snoop taking Eazy’s spot.
Whatever comes of that, N.W.A had more of an effect in less time than probably any figures in pop music history. It’s as if Sinatra had become Sinatra by cutting a single record, as if Dylan quit before going electric. N.W.A incited a revolution that redefined hip-hop just as hip-hop was poised to overrun popular culture. As pop has increasingly become the culture that matters, hip-hop has reached deep into mainstream America.
It really was the beginning of the end of life as we knew it. The beginning of the end, it turned out, was accompanied not by heavenly choirs but a rhythm section.
This is not an idle point. Rhythm is a drug. Maybe, like medicine, it should never be consumed in combination with other dangerous substances.
Maybe that’s what happened with “Straight Outta Compton.” Maybe by combining deadly rhythm with taboo subjects–violence and sex and drugs–it gathered unprecedented strength. Maybe it was unstoppable; just too powerful, too forceful.
Maybe, in other words, it was just too damn good.